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The burning steamer S.S. Congress, as seen from the deck of the dredge Colonel P.S. Michie, with lifeboats in the water.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Klux in Oregon

A slick marketing campaign and a taste for political power marked the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, which spread through Oregon like a racist virus — and then collapsed.


The burning steamer S.S. Congress, as seen from the deck of the dredge Colonel P.S. Michie, with lifeboats in the water.

Massive ocean liner won its race with fiery death

Calm seas, a cool-headed skipper and a hard-working crew brought the burning S.S. Congress to safety just in time. All 428 aboard made it.


This cover illustration from "Masked Rider Western," published in 1950, bears an uncanny resemblance to the events that kicked off Vigilante rule in Crook County.

"I can make a
six-shooter sing 'come to jesus'!"

Meet Robert Gordon Duncan, the pioneering Portland shock-jock who was the first person ever sent to prison for cursing on the air, in 1930.


This cover illustration from "Masked Rider Western," published in 1950, bears an uncanny resemblance to the events that kicked off Vigilante rule in Crook County.

When prineville was ruled by masked vigilante riders

In Crook County, the early 1880s were like a Louis L'Amour novel. And it all started with the lynching of an innocent man.


The classic melodrama villain, with sleek silk hat and waxed handlebar mustache, in the act of evicting the poor widow and children from their freshly foreclosed family homestead. Except for the mustache, Oregon's longest-serving 19th-century senator fit the trope with remarkable precision.

Senator John H. Mitchell: Oregon's own real-life Snidely Whiplash

He abandoned his family, changed his name, moved to Oregon, bilked widows and orphans in two big real-estate swindles ... and was promptly elected to Congress.


The skull of the skeleton found in the Odd Fellows hall in Scio, which is now at Oregon State University. The skeleton was that of a hard-working man who died sometime between 1860 and 1890.

Mysterious skeletons of Oregon: If these bones could talk ...

A long-dead dry-land homesteader ... a medical specimen in an Odd Fellows lodge ... what are their stories? We'll never know.


Oregon inventor Victor Strode’s revolutionary boat, the 'aerohydrocraft,' made the front cover of the March 1931 issue of Popular Science. The design didn't prove a useful one for the City of Portland, though, and the larger model the city commissioned to function as a harbor police boat didn't work out.

Buck Rogers-style police boat didn't work out for city of Portland

A local inventor developed the "aerohydrocraft" design in the early 1930s. But when the city built one as an ambulance boat, it flopped.


The remains of the barque Peter Iredale as they appear today, jutting out of the beach sands on Clatsop Spit at Warrenton as they have since 1906. In 1960, the wreck nearly was lost to a man who claimed he owned it.

How the Oregon Coast almost lost the Peter Iredale to a scrap-metal shark

An Oregon City man claimed he'd inherited the rights from his father, and demanded to be allowed to cut it up and haul it away. He almost got away with this little swindle.


Commander Dave Scott salutes the U.S. flag, which has just been planted on the surface of the moon. A small piece of Oregon lava rock, carried to the moon by Scott's fellow astronaut Jim Irwin, lies within this photo, next to one of the many bootprints. (Image: NASA)

There's a piece of lava from central oregon in this photo, on the moon.

It was left there by astronaut Jim Irwin at the request of a friend from Bend — who gave him a sliver of Oregon lava to leave on the moon's surface. And so he did.


The Motel 6 on Mission Street in Salem as it appeared in the mid-1970s, when Carl Cletus Bowles made his run from its back door. Don't laugh, at least not too loudly ... two innocent people would die before Bowles was back in prison.

During a conjugal visit at a cheap motel, the prisoner escaped

It had to be the most awkward prison-break scenario in the history of the universe. But it really did happen. Here's the story.


James Lappeus, former Portland Chief of Police. He eventually was fired over allegations that he'd offered to 'accidentally' leave the jailhouse door open for a convicted murderer if his wife paid a $1,000 bribe.

gambler, swindler, gunfighter, liquor man ... oh, and also police chief.

James Lappeus came to Portland to open a saloon and "theater." Despite his checkered past — or maybe because of it — he was named city marshal and, later, Chief of Police. Here's the story.


This postcard picture of Cannon Beach was created in 1966, which means just off to the left of the frame is a beach with a fence around it and "no trespassing" signs.

HOW OREGON ALMOST LOST PUBLIC ACCESS TO ITS BEACHES

A Portland real-estate guy found a loophole in the law and claimed a patch of beach for his own, and his friends in the state Legislature tried to keep it that way. Here's the story.


A color lithograph of George and Kate Ann Williams’s Victorian  mansion, located at 18th and Couch streets downtown.

This spooky-looking Portland mansion was home of a 'starvation cult'

A prominent Portland socialite led a sect called "Truth," with the motto "Pray and Be Cured," that required 40-day fasts. It vanished after its leader starved herself to death during a 110-day fast. Here's the story.


The archway monument leading up to the Wallowa County Courthouse,  built in 1936. The bronze plaque on the inside left of the arch includes  the name of murderer and horse thief Bruce “Blue” Evans.

A monument in honor of a horse thief and mass murderer?

Bruce "Blue" Evans led the gang that slaughtered over 30 innocent Chinese miners in 1887. So why is his name celebrated on a monument to Wallowa County Pioneers? . Here's the story.


Title screen from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Mel Blanc, the legendary Looney Toons voice man, grew up in Portland.

The voice of Bugs Bunny went to high school in Portland

Legendary Hollywood voice man Mel Blanc's teachers weren't too impressed with his voice talents, but Oregon radio listeners and cartoon fans sure were. Here's the story.


Three Rocks Beach, Camp Westwind, the mouth of the Salmon River and Cascade  Head as they appear today.

Is there pirate loot buried at this YWCA youth camp?

The discovery of a giant skeleton in the 1930s suggested that the old Indian legend of a pirate ship sinking in the Salmon River might be true ... or maybe not. Here's the story.


This is not a picture of the Sunshine; it's a lumber schooner of a similar type, the Wawona. The Sunshine, on her way home from her maiden voyage to San Francisco, vanished and then reappeared, upside down, 200 miles off course.

Gold was gone when schooner washed ashore ... empty

The fate of the Sunshine's passengers and crew is unknown ... did somebody wreck the ship on purpose? Here's the story.


The gravestone of Ame, who despite having died 10 years after the Civil War, was still considered a slave.

sHE DIED AROUND 1874. SO WHY DOES THE GRAVESTONE SAY SHE WAS A SLAVE?

Ame came over the Oregon Trail from Missouri. But when the North won the Civil War, her status as a slave didn't change. Here's what happened.


Ray V.B. Jackson in a booking photo from the Oregon State Pen, in 1896. Four years after this photo was taken, he was teaching grade school in Silver Lake.

Is this the face of oregon's first serial killer?

Like an "angel of death," ex-con Ray V.B. Jackson just happened to be at the scene of at least five Central Oregon homicides. What are the odds? Here's the story (in two parts).


Vaudeville's famous Klondike Kate became a Central Oregon legend

central oregon's most fabulous homesteader ever.

Homesteader Kitty "Klondike Kate" Rockwell, retired from the bright lights of Vaudeville, often wore full costume just to weed the garden. Here's the story.


Goal of Oregon whale hunters: Grow fur coats, and put a man on the moon.

helping put a man on the moon, one dead whale at a time?

Whale oil is special stuff, and NASA needed it for the space program. So an Astoria group launched a whaling venture in the early 1960s. Here's the story.


Early Oregon 'holy roller' cult ended in murder, suicide, insanity

THE holy-roller "NAKED LADIES' CULT" IN CORVALLIS and waldport.

It started out as a church seeking perfect holiness and Godliness. It ended in murder, insanity and chaos — and, yes, rumors of naked ladies. Check out the full story (in two parts).


Florence's famous exploding whale: A highway engineer didn't know how much dynamite to use, so he guessed ... and guessed wrong.

Whale explodes: Details at 11.

The highway department guy didn't know how much dynamite to use, and said so on camera. But he still thinks the operation was a success. Check out the story of Florence's famous exploding whale ...


The Glenesslin, under almost full sail, grinds against the rocks at the base of Neahkahnie Mountain.

was this shipwreck insurance fraud or just drunken incompetence?

On a beautiful clear October day, astonished beach-goers watched a big windjammer simply turn and sail straight into the side of a mountain. Why would her crew do such a thing? Here's the story.


U.S. Coast Guard cutter Algonquin.

bootleggers saveD sailors' lives, were rewarded with prison.

In the early years of Prohibition, a Canadian rumrunner entered U.S. territorial waters to save the lives of nine castaways — and got caught and sent to jail anyway. Here's the story.


Steamer Admiral Evans, f.k.a. Buckman, which the two would-be pirates tried to hijack

THE dumbest would-be pirates in the history of the universe.

Their plan: Hijack a passenger steamer (that's it, in the thumbnail above), run it aground and sneak off into the bushes with 3 tons of gold. Do I need to mention that it didn't work out? Here's what happened.


Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Joseph bank robber became VP
of the bank he once robbed

Young cowboy wanted a share of the loot so he could marry his sweetheart; after he got out of prison, he worked for decades to earn back the trust of her and of the community.

The front cover of the June 1958 issue of “For Men Only Magazine”
featured this illustration of an Old West bank robbery in progress.

When the First National Bank of Joseph, Oregon, picked David Tucker as vice-president in 1928, it didn’t look like a particularly unusual thing to do.

Tucker was a widely respected part of the community in Joseph. A successful stockman, he had, over the previous 20 years, forged a reputation for himself as an honest, trustworthy man — and kind and generous to boot. He was especially effective at taking hotheaded young lads under his wing, helping them out of bad situations and inspiring them to turn their lives around.

When doing this, he almost certainly showed them his right hand. The thumb and forefinger were missing from it — blown off by a rifle bullet on October 1, 1896 — during a bank robbery.

During the bank robbery. The robbery of the First Bank of Joseph, Oregon. And Vice-President Tucker had been one of the robbers.

The main street in Joseph as it appeared in the early 1950s. The First Bank
of Joseph building is in the center of the frame on the left side of the street.
(Postcard image)

The robbery had its start when Tucker, then a 25-year-old cowboy, met a couple of professional stickup artists who had come to the Joseph area and taken jobs shearing sheep. Their idea was to lay low for a while after a job elsewhere in the state had made things a bit too hot for them. Cyrus Fitzhugh and James Brown were their names.

Brown and Fitzhugh soon found a saloon that suited their temperament, and its proprietor and bartender, John Martin, soon learned what the two of them really did for a living. Martin, as it turned out, had a little personal grudge against one of the local bank’s major stockholders, stemming from a lawsuit he’d lost. As for Dave Tucker, he wanted money so he could afford to marry his sweetheart.

So the four of them started making plans.

The First Bank of Joseph building in the mid-1950s. (Image: Salem Public
Library)

The plotters made their move on Oct. 1, 1896. Bartender Martin hung around the bank and signaled the other three when he saw the bank teller come and open the place up. Then the three robbers rode up the street, tied their horses nearby and walked into the bank, guns out.

There was already a problem, though. With an eye toward disguising themselves, the three had rubbed their faces with dirt, and had done such a fine job of this that a group of schoolgirls thought they might be African-Americans. No black person had ever been seen in Joseph, so this was very exciting, and the girls had started following them. One of the three robbers — almost certainly Tucker — had turned to shoo them away.

“Go back,” he'd told them gruffly. “The bank is about to be robbed, and you might get hurt.”

For three desperados about to knock over an uninsured bank in a tiny cowboy town full of heavily-armed, frontier-hardened law-and-order types, this was an extraordinarily stupid thing to say. But, luckily for the bad guys, when the girls got back to the school, nobody believed them, and the coast was still clear.

The three robbers stepped inside. Tucker stood by the door of the bank, pistol in hand, watching the street. Brown and Fitzhugh quietly got the cooperation of the five customers who were inside the bank and waited for the teller, J.D. McCully, to come out of the vault, which he soon did — looking down at the paperwork in his hands.

“Stick ‘em up,” said Fitzhugh, pointing his sawed-off 12-gauge at McCully. McCully, without looking up, laughed at what he thought was a pretty funny joke and kept walking toward his window. When he arrived, he finally looked up. He was, to put it mildly, startled by what he saw.

“Father has since frequently remembered that never before did he realize that a shotgun barrel was so big,” remarked McCully’s son, Russell, many years later.

The robbers were disappointed; the $8,000 or so that they’d expected to find turned out to not be there, and they were only able to put together about $2,000. They took a little extra time scrounging up every nickel in the place. While they were doing that, Tucker, by the door, was starting to get very nervous.

The word was out. Some observant neighbors had seen Tucker, a bandanna around his nose, standing in the door of the bank with a drawn pistol in his hand. It wasn’t hard to figure out what that meant.

“Those men are going to rob the bank!” yelled a passerby. This attracted Tucker’s attention, and he pointed his pistol at him and ordered him to come stand with him on the steps of the bank. Several other people then came out of buildings, and Tucker made them come join him as well.

But the damage had been done. In W.H. Burton’s Home Comfort Steel Kitchen Range store across the street, a young fellow named Alex Donnelly was looking over some used stoves when the two of them heard the cry. They looked up; Tucker pointed the pistol at them and invited them to join his growing throng of hostages; and instead, they ducked down behind the steel stoves and hustled out the back.

Donnelly ran down to the general store and gave the alarm. The proprietor of the hardware store ran behind the counter and started handing out firearms. In an instant, the gun counter was emptied out, and armed Joseph residents started closing in on the bank.

Burton raced to the home of a local named Fred Wagner and asked to use his rifle. Wagner declined.

“I know my Winchester better than you,” he said. “I will use it.”

And he grabbed it, and stepped into the street.

Meanwhile, Tucker was watching all this and starting to panic. “Hurry up!” he shouted. “They are coming with guns!”

Grabbing the sack of loot, Brown hustled out of the bank, followed by Fitzhugh, with the group of hostages in front of them to serve as a human shield.

Then, from behind the human shield, Wagner opened up on them with his .45-70 Winchester.

The first shot missed. Tucker whipped around with his revolver and fired at the same instant Wagner’s second shot roared out. Tucker’s bullet missed Wagner’s head by an inch or so; Wagner’s bullet plowed into Tucker’s gun hand, sending his pistol flying in a spray of blood and parts that included his trigger finger and his thumb.

Wagner jacked the lever on his rifle and fired again. This bullet plowed into Brown’s chest, throwing him down into a sitting position on the bank steps. Seconds later he was dead. Fitzhugh raced back, braving Wagner’s fire, grabbed the bag of loot and sprinted for his horse.

Bloodied, disarmed and terrified, Tucker — the future bank vice-president of the bank he’d just helped rob — ran from the scene on foot, leaving his horse behind, an angry and well-armed mob in pursuit. He soon took a charge of bird shot in the side from one of the hardware store’s shotguns, and then a burly blacksmith got the jump on him and he was taken roughly into custody.

Meanwhile, Wagner had emptied out the rest of his rifle shooting horses that were tied up nearby, apparently on the theory that one of them was Fitzhugh’s. It wasn’t, and as a result when Fitzhugh was clambering onto his horse and Wagner had a clear shot at him, his rifle was empty. He hustled back to the house for more bullets, but by the time he returned it was all over. Neither Fitzhugh nor the $2,000 was ever seen again.

The entire town was shocked by Dave Tucker’s involvement in the robbery; everybody knew him, and almost everybody thought he was a nice young man, a talented stockman with plenty of promise, madly in love with a local girl who was kind of like the Doris Day of Joseph: Minnie Proebstel.

A few months later, McCully, the bank teller, went to see him in the jail, and Tucker told his entire story. He’d gotten involved because he wanted enough money to buy a farm and marry Minnie.

Minnie also went to see him in the jail. She told him if he’d stand up and take what was coming to him, when he got out of prison, she’d be waiting for him.

Well, Tucker drew a six-year prison sentence for his part in the deed. Four and a half years later, he was out, and moved back to Joseph, and set about slowly winning back the trust and goodwill of the community. He worked hard, saved his money, bought a small flock of lambs, parlayed it into a big one, bought a farm. When he felt he’d rehabilitated himself enough to deserve her, he proposed to Minnie, and she took him up on it.

Eventually, in 1928, he made an investment in the First National Bank of Joseph — the institution that had succeeded the First Bank of Joseph, the bank he had robbed 32 years before. And at that point, the bank shareholders cheerfully certified this former bank robber as fully rehabilitated — by electing him vice-president of the bank.

And as for Fitzhugh, his name was all but forgotten for decades. But then, around 1940 or so, word came to Joseph from somewhere in Texas that he was being released from prison there, and was he still wanted in Wallowa County?

The citizens of Joseph thought about this. Fitzhugh would be in his 70s. The local residents who had participated in the robbery with him — saloonkeeper Martin and stockman and bank executive Tucker — were friends and neighbors and respected citizens now. And the expense of a trial would be more than the total of loot that had been lost from the bank.

“Therefore, Fitzhugh was given an opportunity to spend the balance of his life a free man,” McCully’s son wrote. “That responsibility was up to him.  Perhaps we will never know his decision.” 

(Sources: McCully, Russell. “Reminiscences of the Joseph Bank Robbery,” www.oregonpioneers.com; Portland Morning Oregonian, Oct. 2, 1896; Yuksavitch, James. Outlaw Tales of Oregon. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot, 2012; Brown, Ben & al. Illustrated History of Union and Wallowa Counties. Western Historical Publishing Co., 1902)